The UNU-WIDER Visiting PhD Fellowship – in my experience

I now work as an assistant professor at Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. I visited UNU-WIDER in 2017, when I was in the third year of my PhD in development economics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

During my fellowship at UNU-WIDER, I completed the second chapter of my PhD dissertation and started to develop the third chapter. This visiting programme not only provided a supportive environment to improve my work in progress, but also was a great opportunity for me. While visiting, I learned more about the developing world and policies and the experience has shaped my research interest in the long term.

I cannot imagine a better place to work on a PhD dissertation than the nice building UNU-WIDER occupies by the sea. Though many years have passed, I still remember the balcony facing the Helsinki's south harbour, where I used to release myself from data work, think deeply about my research, and discuss it with the faculty. The balcony is always filled with sunshine and I always left there with some achievement.

A good environment for mentorship

The mentors and the faculty at UNU-WIDER are really helpful. I remember a staff that was always around and willing to help improve my research. During the first half of my visit, I completed a paper on agricultural fires in China, published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Combining remote-sensing data on agricultural fires and ground-monitoring data on air pollutants, it estimates the dynamic impact of agricultural fires on urban air pollution in China, based on daily variations. I find that on the first day after a fire starting, the index of air pollution increases by 9.4% of the mean. While decreasing over time, this effect remains significant for at least eight days. It also provides empirical evidence on how this effect changes spatially, with different weather conditions, and across different pollutants.

My mentor, Saurabh Singhal, met me frequently and always had some advice to improve the paper. The other faculty also spent much time listening to my research and providing useful feedback at seminars and during lunch and tea breaks. They are very interactive and friendly with the visiting PhDs. I also met and learnt a lot from the invited speakers of the WIDER Seminar Series and the other visiting scholars from all over the world.

An inspirational experience, overall

The visiting experience at UNU-WIDER also inspired my future research. From the seminars and the WIDER Annual Lecture, I learnt about many poverty and development issues in sub-Saharan African countries. The knowledge shared gradually made me more interested in using household surveys to study households’ behaviour in Africa.

Later, Jiafu An and I studied terrorist attacks in Africa. Exploiting a quasi-experimental setting in which terrorist attacks occurred in the same area during the fieldwork of household surveys, we find that even the low-casualty attacks have a substantial impact on people’s beliefs. Local households became more pessimistic after terrorist attacks. The paper has been published in the Journal of Development Economics.

In other research, I study China’s infrastructure aid projects in Africa with Haicheng Jiang. Based on common time and location of infrastructure projects and household surveys, we investigate how infrastructure projects affect local residents’ employment. The study was included in the AidData Working Paper Series.

Overall, I really appreciate the professional environment offered by UNU-WIDER’s Visiting PhD Fellowship programme. The programme helped to improve my research and my ability to communicate it to others. The three-month visit was full of joy and accomplishment. Located by the harbour in Helsinki, it gets you ready to set sail on the academic journey.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.